By Bria Schirripa
It was 1985 when Michael Stewart, owner of Tavern on Jane, made his way up from the south with aspirations of working in New York’s hospitality industry.
It would be about another decade until his big idea came to fruition.
Let’s rewind—Michael grew up in Raleigh as one of twelve children, spending much of his boyhood in the kitchen with his mom and admiring his older brothers as they worked within the food industry. It was a no-brainer that Michael would follow suit.
He spent ten years working in New York City restaurants, gathering inspiration and industry knowledge. At the tail end of 1995 he alongside his partner at the time, Horton Foote Jr. would get wind of and move in on precious real estate at the corner of Jane and 8th Avenue.
Tavern On Jane. Photo Credit: A Dope Artist
“Horton and I built the Tavern wanting to create a neighborhood community center,” Stewart notes, “we wanted our restaurant to be the local gathering place of the Village and to create the feeling and atmosphere of home.”
The Tavern quickly established itself as just that, attracting locals and visitors alike. From Sunday fried chicken to Wednesday meatloaf night to the annual fall block party, Jane was where many came to find a sense of community.
The restaurant remained mostly the same since opening, but in 2013 changes were made. Michael Stewart bought out Foote and became the sole proprietor. He analyzed how the West Village was changing and took action to accommodate the younger crowd he was often seeing. At the advice of an architect friend he swapped out tables at the front of house for high boys and banquettes, opening up the restaurant and giving it a new flow, but always keeping plenty of seats for their regulars.
“We adapted to how we saw the neighborhood changing, it gave us the chance to survive and update ourselves” Stewart adds that relevance and anticipating what the community needs is the name of the game.
A reliable place for many including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who regularly enjoyed a pre-Knicks game burger with his son. Or Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong who made reference to the restaurant in their 2012 album, “Uno!”
The selection of people who call Jane home knows no bounds.
Like many restaurants in 2020, Jane faced its own set of challenges that they are still facing today as collateral damage of the pandemic.
In 2019, Stewart took out a business loan for the Tavern, half of which was paid off going into 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on businesses stemming from the governmental response, much business was lost and Stewart was forced to refinance the loan several times over. To date, Michael’s debt has grown to half a million dollars, and costs him roughly 20K a month calling it “a tremendous amount of pressure on the business.”
COVID which has been unforgiving to many local shops and restaurants, hit Jane particularly hard.
Aside from having to make up for the money lost during the pandemic, interest on the loan accumulated and has made it extremely difficult for Stewart to get caught up. “The debt that is behind me, is the debt that’s killing me”.
It is worth noting that Stewart, a man committed to his community, never closed Tavern even for one day during the pandemic. Rapidly partnering with delivery services like Seamless and Grubhub, Michael remained a constant for his neighbors, healthcare workers and employees during a challenging time. In fact a majority of his staff, some of whom have twenty-five years tenure under their belt, were eager to return to work.
“We didn’t shut down for a second. We kept going so that we could serve the community and pay our employees”, he says.
Today, Michael has applied for loan forgiveness. The RRF (Restaurant Revitalization Fund) launched in 2022 and gave out $28 billion dollars to restaurants across the U.S., Michael has not seen a dollar.
Many restaurants applied for the fund under false claims and obtained money through fabricated qualifications “if I’d gotten the money, I wouldn’t be in this predicament” says Stewart.
Through hardship, Tavern’s never stopped giving back. The team hosts an annual golf charity for a dear friend, Christie Irvine Ryan who passed away on September 11th. Today, they’ve raised nearly half a million dollars in her name that goes to a Long Island based charity—Family Service League of Nassau County.
The painting of this picture would not be complete without mentioning the Jane Street Block Party. Every October since 1996 Michael pays for a city permit and obtains insurance to close down Jane Street for a day. It is here that the neighborhood gathers for free burgers, beers, hours of live music and of course the friendly faces of the West Village. To many, it is a day they look forward to all year.
Michael Stewart prides himself on relationships, putting patrons and community needs often before his own. Just as he did thirty years ago as a kid from North Carolina, he holds on tight to the idea that Jane will be around for a while longer.
Neighborhood friend and former TOJ employee set up a GoFundMe to collect donations to keep Tavern on Jane afloat find it here https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-tavern-on-jane-survive